John Franklyn Norris was born on September 18, 1877, in Dadeville, Alabama. His father was an alcoholic but his mother seems to have been deeply religious. His family settled in Hill County, Texas, around 1888. He was converted at the age of thirteen in a Baptist camp meeting. He attended both Baylor University in Waco, Texas, and Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky.
In 1905, Norris accepted the pastorate of McKinney Avenue Baptist Church in Dallas, Texas. In 1907, he resigned when he bought and managed The Baptist Standard, a denominational newspaper. He left this position in 1909 and accepted the pastorate of the First Baptist Church of Fort Worth, TX. In 1935, he made a bold move by being pastor simultaneously of a second church, Temple Baptist Church in Detroit, MI.
While in Fort Worth, Norris’ ministry took a controversial turn. He adopted new methods that were seen as “sensational” and began to aggressively attack sin, sinners, local leaders, denominational leaders, and even friends. Norris and his church attracted great crowds, but were alienated from most denominational groups.
Controversy wasn’t just limited to his pulpit either. In 1912, the church auditorium was destroyed in a fire. Norris was charged with arson and perjury in connection with the fire, but was acquitted. On July 17, 1926, Norris shot an intoxicated man named D. E. Chipps in the church office. He was charged with murder but the next year was found not guilty on grounds of self defense. The church was again destroyed in a fire in 1929 that was ruled arson but no one was ever charged.
Norris is also known for the spectacular growth of his churches. Regardless of the numbers in Norris’ propaganda, his church was easily one of, if not the, largest in America. He was also a pioneer in radio evangelism, editor of his own paper, founder of Bible Baptist Seminary, and a leader of the Fundamentalist movement.
Much of his ministerial empire had eroded away when he died in 1952. Today he is remembered more for controversies and attacks than souls won or lives touched.
Where do you begin with J. Frank Norris? I do not know of a more controversial figure among Baptists in America yet he may just be the most fascinating figure at the same time. He could take valiant stands for truth yet fight those battles in such a way that even his allies would be alienated from him. Most people I come across today merely know him as the preacher that shot and killed a man or maybe for the legendary attacks he let loose from pulpit and press. Yet he was a beloved hero to many and accomplished things few other preachers can match. The complexity of his life and ministry will no doubt continue to be studied and debated for generations to come. – MBG